The Character and Logical Method of Political Economy

Cairnes, John Elliot
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First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
Pub. Date
2nd edition
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Appendix B


The limits of economic investigation contended for in the text, though, as has been seen, not in keeping with the theories of some distinguished economists, have, in the actual development of the science, been all but universally observed. As a rule, every economist, so soon as an economic fact has been traced to a mental principle, considers the question solved, so far as the science of wealth is concerned; just as he considers it equally solved when he has traced such a fact to a physical principle. Though Adam Smith has not formally discussed the question, his view may be inferred from the following passage:—"The division of labour from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility—the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another. Whether this propensity be one of those original principles in human nature, of which no further account can be given, or whether, as seems more probable, it be the necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech, it belongs not to the present subject to inquire." ('Wealth of Nations,' Book i. chap. ii.) In other words, he distinctly declines to 'explain the laws of mind' under which division of labour takes place; regarding them as facts not to be explained, but to be taken notice of and reasoned upon, in precisely the same way as in a subsequent chapter he notices the physical qualities of the precious metals—their portability, durability, divisibility, &c.—as physical facts to be taken account of, in order to understand the general adoption of them for the purposes of money. He no more attempts to explain the mental principles which lead to division of labour, than he attempts to explain the physical principles which render the precious metals suitable as a medium of exchange. In both cases, in the language of Mr. Senior, 'he is satisfied with stating their existence.'


The only writer, so far as I know, who has, in practice transcended the limits indicated and observed by Adam Smith, is Mr. Jennings in his 'Natural Elements of Political Economy.' Not content with assuming mental principles as premisses to be reasoned upon, in the same way as physical principles are assumed and reasoned upon, Mr. Jennings regards the explanation of the laws of mind as coming properly within the province of the political economist; and agreeably with this view, his book is devoted to an analysis of the principles of human nature, psychological and physiological, which are brought into action in the pursuit of wealth. Thus having resolved the operations of industry into certain movements of muscles and nerve-fibre, he proceeds 'to inquire what is the modus operandi of the mental influence which actuates these organic instruments,' and this modus operand having been analyzed, and the mental elements of the process ascertained, he makes these the basis of the division of industrial actions. These he divides as follows, viz.:—1stly, those which are 'marked simply by the law of former co-existence,'—of which he gives the examples of 'digging, threshing, rowing, sawing,' &c.; 2ndly, those which are 'marked by the application of judgment to the merely memorial trains of thought,' e.g. those of 'superintendents, inspectors,' &c.; 3rdly, those which are 'marked by the application of the law of resemblance to those processes of thought,' e.g. those of 'painters and sculptors'; and 4thly, those which are 'marked by the further application of judgment to resemblance,' e.g. those of 'judges, legislators,' &c. (Page 115 to 117).


Hitherto the nomenclature of Political Economy has been framed with reference to the phenomena of wealth, or the mode of its production and distribution. Mr. Jennings, taking a different view of the nature of economic science, defines and classifies on wholly different principles. Thus, 'consumption' he defines as 'that class of human actions, in which the instrumentality of the afferent trunks of nerve-fibre is predominant,' while 'production' is 'the class in which that of the efferent trunks of nerve-fibre is predominant.' The sensations which attend upon consumption, again, he divides 'into two classes, according as they are conveyed by the nerves, of common sensation, or by the nerves of special sensation.' In the former class are comprised 'sensations of resistance,' of 'temperature,'.... ' sensations consequent on the gratification of appetite,' &c. In the latter, viz.:—those conveyed by nerves of special sensation, are included the charms of 'colour,' of 'form,' and of 'sound,'... "the luscious taste which the palate derives from elaborate substances, in which sapid properties are joined with congenial odours, and diffused through substances agreeable to the touch."


If Political Economy is to be treated in this way, it is evident it will soon become a wholly different study from that which the world has hitherto known it. It is undoubtedly true, as Mr. Jennings remarks in his preface, that the subject matter of Political Economy represents the complex result of mechanical, chemical, physiological, and biological laws, together with the laws of mental and political philosophy; but I cannot think that it follows from this that "each of the more complex of these subjects, being governed by all the laws which govern every subject of inferior complexity, in addition to its own peculiar laws, ought not to be examined, until the difficulties which surround each of these less complex subjects have been surmounted progressively and seriatim." Were this rule rigorously enforced, and were no one to be allowed to matriculate as a political economist till he had mastered all the less complex sciences, including mechanics, astronomy, chemistry, magnetism, electricity, general physics, physiology, biology, together with mental and political philosophy, the practice would certainly be attended with the advantage of effecting a very extensive reduction in the economic ranks; if, indeed, with the exception of Mr. Jennings himself, any should be found capable of passing the terrible ordeal. But I confess that I am quite unable to see the necessity of making such impossible demands upon the human intellect. Surely, to recur to the example taken from Adam Smith, it is possible to perceive that division of labour and exchange, facilitate the production of wealth; without deciding whether the disposition which leads to this course of conduct be an original or derived faculty; or to understand the advantages which the precious metals offer as a measure of value and medium of exchange, though we may be wholly ignorant whether they are simple or complex substances, or appear at the positive or negative pole of the battery. Or, to take an example from Mr. Jennings' book, I confess I am quite unable to see what new light is thrown upon the causes which determine the labourer's condition, by his telling us that during 'production the instrumentality of the efferent trunks of nerve-fibre is predominant,' while during ' consumption' it is 'the afferent trunks of nerve-fibre which prevail.' So long as the result is the same, so long as human beings possess the same energies, require the same subsistence, and are influenced by the same motives, the economic laws of wages will be the same, though they had neither 'afferent' nor 'efferent' trunks of nerve-fibre in their bodies. Even were the encyclopædic knowledge demanded by Mr. Jennings easily attainable, it appears to me that nothing but confusion and error could arise from extending economic inquiry beyond the limits which have hitherto been observed. Take e.g. the division of industrial operations which I have quoted above from Mr. Jennings, founded upon his analysis of the mental principles engaged, what is the economic value of this classification? What light does it throw on the phenomena and laws of wealth? Mr. Jennings places in the same class of 'industrial operators,' judges and legislators, because the actions in which they engage are 'marked by the application of judgment and resemblance to the merely memorial trains of thought'; but economically considered, if it be desirable to class them at all, judges are far more widely separated from legislators than from 'superintendents,' or from 'diggers, threshers, rowers, or sawyers,' who are placed in distinct classes; judges being highly paid officers, while legislators (at least in this country) instead of being paid, are obliged to pay handsomely to be allowed to exercise their functions. If a judge be paid more highly than a digger, it is not because the exercise of the functions of the latter involve only 'memorial trains of thought,' while the exercise of those of the former involve besides the faculties of judgment, and of perceiving analogies—this, economically considered, being an accident; but because the persons who are qualified to perform the functions of a judge, are much fewer than those who are qualified to dig; and the reason the former are more scarce is partly because the requisite natural faculties are more rare, and partly because the expense necessary to their due cultivation is considerable.


Classification will, I presume, be more or less perfect in proportion as it is founded upon those qualities in the objects of it, which, with reference to the ends of the science, are essential; but a classification based upon an analysis of the psychological or physiological operations which take place in the production or distribution of wealth, will not divide producers or distributors according to their economic importance, but according to circumstances which, economically considered, are purely accidental.

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